The History of Easter Island for Kids

Have you ever heard of Easter Island?  Many movies talk about it and some even say that is where the Easter Bunny lives.  But in fact, it is a real place that has nothing to do with the holiday of Easter. But many people know of Easter Island from the large famous face statues that are often seen in pictures of the place.  So why does Easter Island have this name?

Easter Island is a large island that covers nearly 65 square miles.  It is located in the South Pacific Ocean, far off of the west coast of the country of Chile in South America.  It is also an almost equal number of miles to the east of the island of Tahiti.  

Easter Island is the shape of a triangle and measures 14 miles long by 7 miles wide. It was formed by a series of volcano eruptions over time.  The island has many hills and caves within the rocks that go way back into the mountains.  Because much of the rock on the island is made of volcanic rock, it is easy for the rock to form caves and holes over time. 

Easter Island’s largest volcano is called Rano Kao.  It has a highest point that is called Mount Terevaka that reaches 1,665 feet (or 508 meters) above the sea.  The island is sub-tropical, which means it is located below the mid-point of the Earth called the equator and has sunny and dry weather. 

Many people have been confused about the name “Easter Island” and have wondered whether the island has something to do with the holiday of Easter. Is this where the Easter Bunny lives when he is not hopping around the world delivering eggs?  Let’s find out. 

The first people to live on Easter Island arrived on the island around the year 400 A.D. about 1,500 years ago. They were from another Polynesian island close by and they came to Easter Island looking for a new place to live.  These first people called the island “Rapa Nui”.  Because of its remote, or far away, location. The first peoples of Rapa Nui lived there on their own for hundreds of years before there were any other visitors from other countries. 

The traditions and stories of the Polynesian people say that the first king of Rapa Nui was named “Hoto-Matua”.  He was a ruler of a group of people that traveled around many islands in the area.  The group of explorers led by Hoto-Matua was searching for a new place to make their home. The story says that after traveling thousands of miles, the exploring group landed at a sandy beach on the island.  The island of Rapa Nui is actually quite rocky on the coast, or edge of the land near the water.

The traditional Polynesian story says that the group, led by their leader, Hoto-Matua, landed on the sandy beach, which was one of the only sandy spots on the coast. The group explored the island and found that it was a great place to live.  It was abundant with many fish and other types of food, and had a good climate or weather.  They decided to stay and build their home on this newly found island.  This is the start of the first peoples living on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. The first peoples learned how to harvest food and fish on the island, including native fruit and plants.   They grew in size over time and developed a long and rich culture over the hundreds of years since the first group arrived.

One of the best pieces of evidence of the early people that lived on the island is the giant stone statues that have been found around Easter Island.  These statues are called “moai” and are part of what makes Easter Island famous.  You may have even seen pictures of these statues before.  They look like giant stone heads sticking out of the ground. 

There are over 900 moai statues all over Easter Island!  The statues are all around 13 feet (or 4 meters) high, with a weight of 13 tons!  They are huge faces and chests carved out of a type of rock called “tuff”.  Tuff is a light and porous rock, or rock with holes in it, that was made from volcanic ashes.  One thing that many people don’t know about the statues is that they actually go into the ground and continue at least partly underground.  They are a mystery that no one has yet to solve. 

No one today knows why these statues were made and why there are so many.  It is also a mystery why they were built so big and how they were moved around the island. This would have been an amazing feat of engineering by people living at that time!

One thing is for sure: the statues show that their creators, the early people of Easter Island, were very good craftsmen and engineers. They were very skilled at design and making strong structures.  

In modern times, researchers have determined that there were three different cultural phases, or separate times in human history there.  During the early and middle periods, statues were built and torn down and then rebuilt in the same places.  In the later period, the statues were built even bigger than before and are the statues that you can see pictures of today. 

The first European person to visit Easter Island was a Dutch explorer named Jacob Roggeveen.  He came exploring the area in the year 1722. Captain Roggeveen and his crew arrived on the island on the holiday of Easter.  To help remember the day and celebrate it, the Dutch named the island Paaseiland, which means “Easter Island” in Dutch. This is where the island gets its name! 

In 1770, the Spanish government in Peru sent a group of explorers to Easter Island. The explorers spent four days on the island.  They found that there were about 3,000 native people living on the island. 

Unfortunately, as more and more explorers started visiting the island, they also had diseases that the local islanders had not been around before.  As a result, many of the native islanders died and by 1877, there were only 111 native people living on the island. 

By 1877, Catholic explorers had come to the island to convert, or teach and change the local people to, Christianity.  By the late 19th century, almost all of the people living on the island were Christians. 

In 1888, Chile started using the land to raise sheep.  The government of Chile also appointed a governor to be in charge of Easter Island in 1965, and the island’s people all became Chilean citizens. 

Easter Island does not have any natural bays to form harbors that are places for boats to be parked away from the harsh weather of the ocean. The island’s largest village is called Hanga Roa. It was made into a World Heritage site in 1995, so it will not be developed into a tourist place full of hotels and other developments. 

Today, Easter Island is home to a mixed group of people.  Many of the people living on the island have Polynesian ancestors, or older relatives. The locals now mostly speak Spanish and there are some tourists that visit during the year. 

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